Are you managing your personal energy? Notes from How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

A photo of Tom in a field in Corsica. The sun is shining!
July 7, 2021
July 10, 2021

If you are even mildly curious about becoming more effective and happier you should buy How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big immediately. This is one of those classic books where the ROI is clearly far greater than the cost of the book.

You should read this book if you want to learn:

  • Why you should track your personal energy
  • How certain types of failure can guarantee success
  • How to seek truth in a complex and noisy world
  • Why you should consider being selfish before you act generously
  • How to be more effective in everything you do by acquiring a targeted set of skills

If you needed another reason to buy this book - Scott Adams created the famous Dilbert cartoon series.

How to find truth in a complex world

If you are facing a problem, you can save loads of time and effort by asking a smart friend where to start. You are lucky to have just one or two smart friends, if you've got more - you're luckier than you realise.

What about if you're trying to get to the bottom of something more complex than a small problem. As an example, maybe you're in the midst of a global pandemic and trying to separate truth from noise? 🤔

You can seek truth by being aware of six filters:

  1. Personal Experience
  2. Experience of people you know
  3. Experts
  4. Scientific studies
  5. Common sense
  6. Pattern recognition

What you are looking for is consistency. If you can find consistent answers or guidance across two or three of these filters, you are probably honing in on the truth & correct course of action.

Look for patterns in every part of life, from diet to exercise to any component of success. Try to find scientific backing for your observed patterns, and use yourself as a laboratory to see if the patterns hold for you.

Everything you want out of life can come from things that don't quite work or fail

If success were easy, everyone would do it. It takes effort. That fact works to your advantage because it keeps lazy people out of the game.

If you diligently apply your time, focus, and energy in ways that avoid wipeout risk, with enough patience you are likely to become successful.

For example, let's say you set up a digital store to sell some art. Even if you never sell a single print, you will learn how to set up a website, how to accept payments, and you will probably start to get interested in how to market your goods and build a social media following.

All of that knowledge & the skills you develop in a project are immensely valuable - and they can be re-used across multiple future projects throughout your career. If you run ten projects that ultimately fail by traditional measures of success, you will start to see patterns about what works and figure out how to move faster on the next opportunity.

I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn't ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus, and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt any player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed, All you need to do is stay in the game long enough.

It might help some of you to think of yourself as moist robots and not skin bags full of magic and mystery. If you control the inputs, you can determine the outcomes, give or take some luck. Eat right, exercise, think positively, learn as much as possible, and stay out of jail, and good things can happen.

Manage your personal energy

We humans want many things: good health, financial freedom, accomplishment, a great social life, love, sex, recreation, travel, family, career, and more. The problem with all of this wanting is that the time you spend chasing one of those desires is time you can't spend chasing any of the others. So how do you organize your limited supply of time to get the best result?

Many people write about managing time and tasks to become more productive. Scott suggests we might get a better return by focusing on our energy. If you can improve your personal energy, the time you do have will be of higher quality.

What can you do to improve your personal energy?

  • Eat well
  • Exercise
  • Avoid unnecessary stress
  • Get enough sleep (Reminder - 8 hours in bed does not equal 8 hours of sleep!)
  • Have something in your life that makes you excited to wake up

That last point is really interesting. Having something you're excited about means you'll probably be able to get into a flow state when you're doing that task. But having something you want to get to around your other responsibilities means you will want to get your job done effectively.

When I get my personal energy right, the quality of my work is better, and I can complete it faster. That keeps my career on track. And when all of that is working, and I feel relaxed and energetic, my personal life is better too.**

What does improved personal energy look like? It is not 100mph triple espresso running through walls energy. It's that calm focused state where you appear to be gliding around in a good mood.

Control over your time & energy

Scott wasn't always a full-time cartoonist with control over his time. In the book, he talks about how he worked in several awful corporate jobs, but he always enjoyed going to work. He exercised most evenings, which meant he woke up feeling good. Crucially - he thinks the connection between having one or two side projects going on whilst working, having this prospect of starting his 'own thing' kept him enormously energised.

You should consider waking up very early. For the first sixteen years of Scott's corporate life, he did not have a flexible schedule. Instead, he woke up at 4:00 AM to work on creative side projects. One of those projects become Dilbert. Try it out. You might find produce more in those few hours than other people produce all day.

I'm here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, and exercise. I've explained to a number of people my observations about how exercise, diet, and sleep influence mood. The usual reaction is a blank expression followed by a change of topic. No one wants to believe that the formula for happiness is as simple as daydreaming, controlling your schedule, napping, eating right, and being active every day.

If you take care of yourself in this way; prioritising exercise, diet, sleep, creating flexibility, you will be better poised to pursue the things you want to achieve.

Ask yourself this question: At times when you’ve exercised earlier in the day, eaten well, hydrated, and had enough sleep, what percentage of those times have you found yourself in a good mood? I'll bet you don't know the answer to that question because it's not the sort of thing anyone pays attention to. But now that I've put the idea in your head, you'll automatically find yourself noticing the link between daily body maintenance and your not-so-mysterious happiness. I predict you'll observe that your good moods are highly correlated with exercise, diet, and sleep.

Concentric Rings of Priority

How would you prioritise community, family/friends, money, and health?

If these areas of your life were an archery target, which one would you put in the middle? 🏹

Consider this:

  • If  you are not healthy, you cannot work on any other priorities
  • If you don't get your financial house in order, you will be a burden on everyone from your family to your country
  • If you are healthy and financially stable, you can engage with family, friends, and lovers as less of a burden
  • Then you can tackle your local community, country, and the wider world.

So Scott puts his health first, then financial foundation, then family/friends, then the wider community. Each stable ring supports the next area.

Don't bother trying to fix the world until you get the inner circles of your priorities under control.

Be a learning machine

You should prioritise learning. If you work a corporate job, do not forget that they are full of learning opportunities. If you work for a large company, there are probably more training resources and platforms available to you than you can shake a stick at. You should put yourself forward for anything that you think might be useful.

The more you learn, the stronger the latticework of ideas in your head becomes. You can see patterns and similarities between different fields.

The more concepts you understand, the easier it is to learn new ones, Imagine explaining to an extraterrestrial visitor the concept of a horse. It would take some time. If the next thing you tried to explain were the concept of a zebra, the conversation would be shorter. You would simply point out that a zebra is a lot like a horse but with black and white strips. Everything you learn becomes a shortcut for understanding something else.

You can become very effective by becoming averagely good at:

  • Public speaking
  • Psychology  
  • Business writing
  • Accounting
  • Design (the basics)
  • Conversation
  • Overcoming shyness
  • Second language
  • Proper grammar
  • Persuasion
  • Technology (hobby level)
  • Proper voice technique

Buy the book already

Honestly. Just buy it. The book is brimming with good ideas. The sections above are just a selection of the notes and ideas I scribbled down as I worked through the book. This is the kind of book I can imagine buying a copy of for my kids when they go off to university. It's full of sensible, pragmatic advice about how to live a more effective life.

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